Commentary

Mega-deal puts Tigers in new culture club

Originally Published: February 25, 2008
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Dontrelle Willis was on vacation in Mexico when he heard The News.

Miguel Cabrera was driving down I-95 in South Florida, taking his wife to the airport.

Jeremy Bonderman was hanging out at home in Pasco, Wash., when his cell phone rang.

"Hey, your team just traded for Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera," his buddy told him.

"Baloney," Bonderman said (or something like that).

Meanwhile, in Pell City, Ala., a text message popped up on Todd Jones' cell phone -- "from an inside source," Jones said, chuckling.

The text read: "Merry Christmas from the Marlins. You're not going to believe who you just got."

That was Dec. 4, the day the Detroit Tigers agreed to The Deal That Shook Their Earth. Two and a half months later, these men still have trouble comprehending it.

"I can't believe this kind of deal coming to a team I was on," Jones said.

Not that Jones and his teammates hadn't heard the Cabrera trade rumors. Who hadn't? But they thought he was heading to the Los Angeles Angels.

They had heard the Willis trade rumors, too. But there was no indication Willis was even close to changing area codes.

And they hadn't heard any rumors about their team making a deal like this. For good reason. Even general manager Dave Dombrowski admitted he thought his club was done with big offseason moves.

Then this eight-player blockbuster with the Florida Marlins erupted like a tidal wave, just about out of nowhere. Next thing they knew, the Tigers had completed the most sport-rattling trade of the offseason.

[+] EnlargeMiguel Cabrera
Tom DiPace for ESPN.comThe addition of Miguel Cabrera gives the Tigers one of baseball's most formidable lineups.
There are events in the life of every franchise that feel special, life-altering. This felt like one of those moments.

Rationally, of course, we know it's too soon to tell. Cabrera and Willis have yet to show up in a single box score. So we have no standings to consult. No wins. No losses. No numbers on the stat sheet. But we do have this:

We have the ticket-buying frenzy that exploded in Detroit in the aftermath of that trade. And "frenzy" might be way too mellow a word for this insanity.

In not much more than a month after that deal, the Tigers sold the equivalent of 8,500 new full-season tickets. That's a 44 percent increase. For a team that just set its all-time attendance record (3.047 million) last year.

In a city where attendance already was up 123 percent since 2003.

In a community where the economy is plummeting toward rock bottom.

But even those numbers don't quite capture what the metamorphosis of the Tigers, from stumblebums to titans, has meant to the town in which they play.

"The one thing that really touches me," Dombrowski said, "is whenever I go around, no matter where I might be, if it's to dinner, to church, to my son's basketball games or to watch my daughter go horseback riding, the number of people who just stop and say, 'Thank you.'

"I went last night to Disney World with my wife and kids. We went to this show that they have there, at Fort Wilderness. And some man from [Michigan] stops me and says, 'I just want to say thank you very much.' … It's unbelievable. It's everywhere we go."

It's a fascinating phenomenon, when you think about it. Thank you for what?

The Tigers, as a whole lot of people in Cleveland (and other places) keep pointing out, haven't won anything yet. Heck, they haven't done anything yet, aside from a bunch of spectacular bunt drills and pitchers' fielding practice this spring. But something is happening here -- something we didn't see coming as recently as two years ago.

Yeah, two. Remember, heading into 2006, the Tigers hadn't had a winning season since the heyday of the Sparky Anderson administration. They had ripped off 12 straight losing seasons. Twelve. They had averaged 96 losses a year over the previous 10 seasons. They had averaged more than 100 losses a year over the previous five.

During those 12 years in the torture chamber, they lost 50 more games than the next-losingest team. Yep, you read that correctly. Fifty.

"And now," Dombrowski said, "people forget how many years in a row we lost."

They sure do. Now, the Tigers are a team with a payroll that could top $130 million. Now, they are a team people routinely mention in discussions of baseball's megapowers -- right alongside the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. And now, with this trade, the buzz about them feels like something out of 1984.

[+] EnlargeDontrelle Willis
Tom DiPace for ESPN.comThe Tigers are hoping for a bounce-back year from Dontrelle Willis, who had a 5.17 ERA in 2007.
That's because, for those worn-down citizens of Detroit, this trade was about more than the players heading their way -- two players who, in case you hadn't noticed, had made a combined six All-Star teams by age 25.

Trades like this, you see, were the kind of thing that always happened in someone else's town, to someone else's team. Not in Detroit. Not to the Tigers. So we all should understand why, when that spins around, it's officially time for massive culture shock.

"I think for years, this organization had been in a position where 'winning right now' didn't seem like the No. 1 priority," Dombrowski said. "And I think with this acquisition, everybody knew you're talking about one of the best hitters in the game and a quality pitcher. And all of a sudden, for these people, they were part of their team. And I think people rallied around that.

"I've had people tell me stories. It's almost like one of those things: Where were you when this trade happened? I had somebody tell me the other day, 'I got off the plane in California, and I heard the rumor. It was the middle of the night back home, but I called my wife and I said, 'Is our son asleep? Well, wake him up.'

"You know, when you've been down a long time," Dombrowski philosophized, "this is what happens."

Exactly. The Tigers have won just one World Series in the past 40 years -- and that was 24 years ago. So people can forget how that feels. But now, at least they know what it feels like to "win" the offseason. And it's a sensation that feels a lot like euphoria.

There's just one minor problem with that kind of euphoria, though:

The Tigers won't be allowed to transfer any of those otherwise-uplifting euphoria points into that still-slightly-meaningful win column.

Apparently, the Tigers still are going to be forced to play out the season. For some reason.

So while even the local manager/oracle, Jim Leyland, admitted he is excited to be taking this kind of team to spring training, he is trying to guard against that euphoria, trying not to feed into it.

"Am I excited? Yes, because I think we really have a good team," Leyland said. "But does it mean anything? No. Not unless you go out and prove it. And we're not going to get caught in that trap.

"We can't help what other people say. You have to take that with a grain of salt, because the same people are going to be all over our [butts] if we don't do well. They're going to say we're the biggest fluke of the year and all that kind of stuff. I mean, I've been down this road before. So I don't pay much attention to that."

Matter of fact, Leyland drove down a road that looked remarkably similar to this one as recently as last spring. Back then, he was managing a team that had just upset the Yankees in October, gone to the World Series and looked as loaded as any club could look in February. But you know what happened.

That team had the best record in baseball at the All-Star break -- then got discombobulated and finished eight games behind the Cleveland Indians. So the manager is having none of this Detroit-is-the-team-to-beat talk

"Last year, going into spring training, we were the team to beat -- and [Cleveland] beat us," Leyland said. "We represented the American League in the World Series, so I'll buy the fact that last year we were the team to beat. But this year we're not."

That might sound like Leyland, the master psychologist, trying to transfer the pressure to the shores of a different Great Lake. But in reality, that's his way of reminding a locker room jammed with 11 All-Stars that it's a little early to be planning that World Series parade route.

"You've got to make sure you get there first," Jones said. "You can't start out selling playoff tickets in April. We've got a lot to take care of to make sure our ship is lined up, headed north, ready to go."

I know a lot of talk goes with good teams. ... But I'm also smart enough to know ... these other teams don't give a [hoot] about the Detroit Tigers. ... They're going about their business, and they're going to compete, just like we are.

--Tigers manager Jim Leyland

Nevertheless, Jones said, "On paper, this is the best team I've ever been a part of."

But just because the Tigers might have 110-win upside on paper, that doesn't mean there aren't lots of things that could conceivably go wrong.

"They're not perfect," one rival AL executive said. "They might score 1,100 runs, but I wonder about their pitching. Bonderman had a tough second half with that elbow. Dontrelle is not a lock to bounce back. Kenny Rogers only threw 63 innings, and now he's 43 years old."

Not to mention the roster is full of players with significant injury histories. And the Tigers' No. 1 setup relief monster, Joel Zumaya, might never be the same after a bizarre offseason box-moving accident led to reconstructive shoulder surgery. In addition, they did thin out their system by trading away eight prospects in the deals that brought them Cabrera, Willis and Edgar Renteria.

So all this talk, all this euphoria, all this buzz, is a tremendous thing for Detroit -- and for the whole sport of baseball. But for the Tigers, the real work is just starting.

"I know a lot of talk goes with good teams," Leyland said. "It should. And I embrace that kind of stuff. But I'm also smart enough to know … these other teams don't give a [hoot] about the Detroit Tigers. I can tell you that right now. They could care less. They've got good teams, and they're going about their business, and they're going to compete, just like we are."

So to all those folks in Detroit, we would say: Savor this moment. Lap up the anticipation. Enjoy the ride. But heed the words of the manager. Let your heart pump over the anticipation of what might be. But don't forget to let your head remind you how challenging the journey itself can be.

"I'm really looking forward to this," Leyland said. "But right now … we haven't done anything."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com